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Beyond 'Blood Diamond' - How Social Impact Campaigns Add Lasting Value To Productions

Posted By Bonnie Abaunza, Thursday, January 16, 2020

The civil war in Sierra Leone began in 1991 and lasted 11 years. It claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people. When it began, diamonds mined in the strongholds controlled by a rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, were sold to finance the war effort or traded for weapons and military training. Journalists and human rights activists on the ground raised the alarm and alerted the international community about the sale of these “conflict diamonds,” or “blood diamonds,” as they came to be known. But it wasn’t until the 2006 feature film, Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, that the public learned the term and the role that diamonds played in the devastating civil war.

The film’s impact campaign, spearheaded by Global Witness and Amnesty International, helped to educate the global community about blood diamonds, as well as the Kimberley Process used to certify conflict-free diamonds, the complicit role of some international jewelry companies, and the specific actions that individuals could take to be responsible, conscious consumers of diamonds. Global Witness and Amnesty International mobilized their members to spread the word about the film.

Thirteen years after the movie’s release, jewelers still promote to customers that their diamonds are certified conflict-free. Like blood diamonds, the terms blood minerals, blood chocolate and blood gold are now also part of the progressive vernacular, in large part due to the film and impact campaign. Blood Diamond has been integrated into the curricula in high schools and college courses, and is referenced by organizations in international human rights legal cases. Numerous other documentaries focusing on conflict minerals and gold have modeled their social impact campaigns after Blood Diamond.

 

The Value of Social Impact Campaigns

In the most widely used structure of social impact campaigns, organizations partner with studios and filmmakers on projects that can be mutually beneficial: the films help raise awareness with the theatergoing public about the issues these organizations confront, and in turn, organizations help mobilize their millions of members to support the film during its theatrical release. The NGOs also provide a “seal of approval” about the film’s accuracy and help generate stories in both mainstream and nontraditional press about the film partnership. The same model of cooperation has been used for documentaries, TV series, streaming and other media.

When Jeff Skoll started Participant Media as a company with the double mission of producing socially relevant films that also had impact campaigns, the company set a high bar and firmly established the landscape of social impact entertainment. Campaigns for films and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, FOOD, Inc., and most recently, Roma, helped drive audiences to theaters and inspired people to take actions that led to tangible changes.

Some films have had lasting social impact long after theatrical release or broadcast and are still being used by organizations, educational institutions and community-based groups. An Inconvenient Truth continues to energize people to engage on the issue of climate change, Blackfish assisted the animal rights movement in compelling Sea World to end its captive orca breeding program and phase out its orca shows, and Super Size Me and FOOD, Inc. led to changes in the fast-food industry. The documentary The Hunting Ground continues to be screened by colleges as part of their Title IX commitments to combatting campus sexual assaults. The music video for the Oscar-nominated song “Til It Happens to You,” written by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga, was an initiative of the film’s social impact campaign. It has been viewed more than 47 million times, and the Sexual Assault Hotline number included at the end of the video resulted in an increase of 34% in calls during the first 48 hours after the video premiered. The music video is still being viewed, and survivors of sexual assault continue to call the hotline.

 

Developing and Executing Impact Campaigns

Social impact campaigns bring together filmmakers, production companies and distributors with nonprofit organizations, think tanks and foundations. Collaboration is vital from the beginning. It is also critically important to define initiatives, metrics and goals in partnership with the people doing the work on the ground, on the policy side, and in agencies that have the power to effect change. Working with organizations helps filmmakers analyze issues from different perspectives. NGOs have credible experts who understand the complexity of the issues in the films and provide valuable insights.

Building a strong coalition behind a movie takes time, partly because securing NGO support requires many levels of approval. This is one reason why it is essential to give social impact campaigns a long runway. It allows the impact campaign team to see the film far enough in advance to start partner outreach, develop a strategy with initiatives and goals, and execute the campaign.

In terms of budgets, a social impact campaign for a studio feature film averages around $300,000; documentaries and independent films between $75,000, and $150,000, depending on length of campaign (6–18 months), number of initiatives, and domestic and international events. Filmmakers and distributors should consider the fact that campaigns can bring numerous additional benefits to a film’s release and can create value long past theatrical and into other platforms.

American Factory directors/producers Steven Bogner and Julie Reichert with President and Mrs. Obama

 

Delivering the Message

Filmmakers sometimes express concern that an impact campaign will politicize their film or will cause the public to perceive the film as a “message” movie that will lecture rather than entertain. In general, documentaries lend themselves to hard-hitting messages while some feature films benefit from a more nuanced “Trojan horse” approach to implementing a campaign. In both cases, the campaigns should complement the marketing and advertising for the film, and should be aligned with the goal of driving box office attendance or drawing viewers to broadcasts or streaming services. The organizations and groups supporting the impact campaigns are a built-in audience that can be mobilized to turn out for the films and to be active partners in promoting them through social media.

 

Current Campaigns

Two critically acclaimed Netflix documentaries have robust campaigns in progress:  Knock Down the House and American Factory.

Knock Down the House, produced by PGA members Regina K. Scully and Stephanie Soechtig, follows four extraordinary women—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin—as they take on the congressional establishment by mounting grassroots campaigns and building a movement during a time of historic volatility in American politics. Knock Down the House’s campaign focuses on the importance of civic engagement, voting, and inspiring young girls and women to pursue elected office.

The outreach initiative has formed partnerships and alliances with a broad base of nonpartisan organizations, community groups and schools. To date, there have been 400-plus high school, college and community-based screenings, and more than 40 nongovernmental organizations are supporting and promoting the documentary.

American Factory, presented by Higher Ground Productions and Participant Media, is the first title from President and Mrs. Obama’s production company. It documents the revitalization of a factory in Dayton, Ohio, and provides a startling glimpse into the global economic realignment playing out in cities across the country and the world. The documentary serves as the launching pad for a national campaign to seed a conversation around the dignity of work, bring visibility to the fractured compact between workers and employers, and build support for a future of work that benefits everyone.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and students from the documentary Knock Down the House

Its social impact campaign include a national tour with film screenings in communities across the country. The tour kicked off in Louisville and will continue on to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Boston, Detroit and Seattle. Experts from the AFL-CIO, New America, and Working America have partnered to create discussion guides and an impact tool kit. Screenings are also being self-organized by individuals and groups in 35 states across the U.S., Italy, Luxembourg and Puerto Rico.

Knock Down the House and America Factory are resonating with a wide variety of organizations and people who are taking action through the impact campaigns. Judging by the engagement metrics, both films are poised to have short- and long-term impact.

This past spring, The UCLA Skoll Center published its landmark report The State of Social Impact Entertainment that maps this landscape, examines frameworks for evaluation, establishes best practices and highlights key issues in the field. With contributions from studio executives, distributors, filmmakers, impact campaign producers and others analyzing the campaigns of narrative and documentary films, television, theater and emerging forms, the report finds that “the financial and critical success of social impact entertainment proves that audiences have a real hunger for stories that entertain, engage and inspire.”


- Photos courtesy of Netflix



Bonnie Abaunza has been an impact campaign producer for 20 years. She is founder of the Abaunza Group, which develops and executes campaigns to help films move the needle on critical social, political and cultural issues. 

 

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